Jennifer Croft
Boris DralyukJennifer Croft
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Hollywood’s Echoes of Odessa

The poet Boris Dralyuk reflects on the slowly disappearing Soviet Jewish community in Los Angeles

by
Jake Marmer
June 27, 2022
Jennifer Croft
Boris DralyukJennifer Croft

This February, Boris Dralyuk and I met in Plummer Park in Los Angeles to speak about his new book, My Hollywood, about poetry and translation, and about Los Angeles and Odessa. At the time, it was still possible to speak of Ukraine casually, to be bored by it—even for the two of us, who were both born there and continue to write in the motherland’s sprawling shadow. But a great deal changes in a few months’ time, and transcribing Boris’ interview now, I found myself longing for the time when Ukraine still felt like casual subject matter, when it was possible to speak of it as the distant old country, to smile with indulgence, admitting one’s own provincial past, to joke at its expense. All of that seems impossible now. In retrospect, the conversation, held right at the cusp of the war, now feels like a gift, and the poems—particularly those filled with echoes of a distant past—are like glowing embers, ready for history’s anxious breath to send them into flames.

Dralyuk’s debut poetry collection, My Hollywood, was published in April by Paul Dry Books. Its title is a witty play on readers’ expectations: One would think that the book contains celebrity sightings or rumors, glimpses of glamour and wealth. Instead, it recounts poems about West Hollywood, a Los Angeles neighborhood where Dralyuk grew up among other Soviet émigrés who have been living there continuously since the 1970s. Dralyuk’s Hollywood is a throng of older Russian-speaking Jewish men playing chess on a park bench, of grocery stores where one can buy buckwheat and herring, of peeling buildings and forgettable surroundings. The opening lines of the book set the tone: “This much is clear: the good old days have passed. / Some giant fig trees, a few pygmy palms / drop broken shade on disenfranchised grass; / dogs loping, limping; vagrants begging alms.”

Can anything be more pitiful than “disenfranchised grass”? The kind that grows all through LA’s eternal summer, and you can’t quite tell anymore, whether it is real or fake, or what color it is. It is disenfranchised from the idea of grass itself, and the pithy phrase is dripping with irony, the sort that permeates much of this collection, as, for instance, in the poem below:

The Garden of Allah

The Garden of Allah Hotel, playground of the movie stars during the 20s and 30s, will be torn down to make way for a new commercial and business center. ... The hotel originally was the home of Alla Nazimova, late stage and screen star.
Los Angeles Mirror-News, 1959


And now I watch another era fade,
Cyrillic letters scraped from shuttered storefronts,
tar-crusted bread, stale fish, stiff marmalade
sit sulking on the shelves, unchosen orphans
in what were once the bustling little shops
of Russian Hollywood. Hardly a soul now stops
to thumb the plums, frown at the penciled prices;
the neighborhood is lurching towards crisis,
all in slow motion. Rents climb out of reach
for émigrés ... There’s nothing new in this.
Think of Nazimova and of her short-lived bliss
beside her pool—her private Black Sea beach ...
She died a tenant in a bungalow
of a hotel razed sixty years ago.

In this poem, the fading, once-glamorous kitsch overlaps with émigré history, and even the names are transposed over each other like one big historical joke. The actress Alla Nazimova once lived here, in a hotel with the faux-exotic name “Garden of Allah,” and both later vanished into oblivion. What remains, though, is a sense of strange likeness between Odessa and Los Angeles. As Dralyuk said to me, reflecting on his childhood: “LA was closer to Odessa than to Moscow or St. Petersburg. Because I’m an Odessan, which is a relatively free city, a city on the periphery, I felt very much at home here … a sun-drenched dilapidated, eccentric town—eccentric in a traditional sense, ex-centric, off center ...”

Indeed, anyone who’s been to Odessa can easily see certain undeniable similarities: Like Los Angeles, it is a town defined by its proximity to the beach, to its obsession with sand and sun and water; it is a town where numerous ethnic cultures and languages thrive; a town where markings of pre-Soviet, exquisite buildings—those that survived World War II—are in a state of eternal disrepair, still beautiful, and perhaps more so for the way it feels like it was history’s weight that cracked them.

What Dralyuk is nostalgic for in this poem, is not Odessa, but Odessa’s echoes in Los Angeles. These echoes are already disappearing. What occurred to me, reading this poem, is that a certain momentum in the life of Soviet Jewry in America has passed—an era has ended. What was perhaps the most visibly “other” Jewish immigrant group is now a part of the larger American landscape, and for one’s desire for assimilation and acceptance, it is hard not to feel a measure of sadness. “I’ve taken my photograph right before the wave washed it away,” Dralyuk told me. “I managed to get to it a minute before it’s too late … to describe what it was like to ‘almost be there.’” That last bit, to “almost be there” is the mark of the poet’s status and privilege as the outsider, standing a few steps away, both there and not quite present. Pointing to Plummer Park, where we sat down, Dralyuk went on: “I’ve been walking around this park with an intent of writing a poem probably since I arrived here at the age of 8, even if I didn’t know the poem was brewing. I’m a shy person, and I’m always amid a place and not of a place. Here is as close to belonging as I’m going to get.”

Spending an afternoon in the park, one can easily see the remnants of the Soviet Jewish community that continues to live around it, bringing along a certain inescapable irony inherent to Dralyuk’s work, and to the Soviet Jewish experience in America, itself. For instance, not far from the chess players, tilted over the parking lot there’s an sign with a haiku by Japanese poet Basho, translated into Russian: “Remember / You and I / Marveled / At the snow / It fell again.” Lovely multilingual moment though it is—indeed a journey across time, languages, and cultures—one can’t but smirk at the sign: It does not really snow in Los Angeles. Wherever the snow fell before, and wherever it fell again, was definitely not in this parking lot.

An even odder, and much darker, irony permeates the park’s central gathering spot: a Babyn Yar monument, which commemorates Holocaust victims of one of the largest mass graves in Ukraine. Despite the tragic weight of the memorial, it is also a place where folks gather, gossip, laugh, yell, flirt, and exchange the latest news. You would think that the park’s center would be the playground, or a fountain, or even an ice cream stand. But no: Soviet Jews came here carrying their trauma, and it was crucially important for them to not only commemorate it, but also surround it with everyday life, in all of its sad glory.

“That’s their gathering spot, where they sun themselves,” said Boris, recalling community elders he observed as a child, gathering near the park’s memorial. “I would stand near them and listen to them talk, and feel transported to Odessa, and feel more at home than anywhere else. What really impressed me was the extraordinary care they showed for their appearance. We don’t associate a babushka with ‘well-kemptness,’ but they wore neatly pressed shirts, trousers with creases, dresses that fit, and with bonnets. I was overcome with admiration for the neatness of it all, and heartbroken by it … these people were outpaced by life, but they concealed it, and kept themselves standing tall.”

As if on cue, three older men, shouting to each other in a peculiar admixture of Russian and Ukrainian walked past us. “You smell that cologne? See the polished pointy shoes? They talk like sailors but they look pretty good,” Dralyuk pointed out. And it occurred to me, his poems are a lot like these older Soviet Jews of Plummer Park: They contain elegant, witty, neat if somewhat old-fashioned rhymes, both describing and embodying the irony of Soviet Jewish predicament.

Although My Hollywood is Dralyuk’s debut collection of poetry, he is an established literary figure: the editor-in-chief of Los Angeles Review of Books, a literary scholar, and a terrific translator of both iconic and newer Eastern European authors. My Hollywood, too, contains several translations of poems written by Russian-speaking immigrants. Thematically, the collection expands to reflect on Los Angeles beyond Plummer Park and West Hollywood. There is a similar tinge of nostalgia and irony in Dralyuk’s “The Minor Masters”:

On Santa Monica I know someone who’ll etch
forms of a hair’s breadth in a rubber stamp.
No molds or lasers: just the human touch.
If darkness overwhelms an heirloom lamp,
head west on Beverly, and east of Kings you’ll find
Pairpoint’s prometheus. If age brittles a book,
on Cahuenga there’s a man who’ll bind
its outcast leaves. Such people make things look
immune to time and innocent of pain,
intact, immaculate, as none of us remain.
Long live the masters whose quaint crafts are holy.
They work in solitude. Now by appointment only.

To be a “minor master” is to do the work that is both exquisite and somehow unnecessary, belonging to another, bygone era. Reading this poem, it is hard not to think of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, and its main protagonist, the Master—a brilliant, visionary writer, deemed unnecessary by the repressive state, but redeemed by supernatural forces and karmic irony. His fate is a reminder that there is a great deal more to the act of repair and manual work than just efficiency. As Dralyuk put it: “People who do the hard invisible work of repairing things are true heroes, and the invisibility is the mark of success. Aesthetically, the same thing. It takes a great many writers and poets doing small things well in order to create a literary community.”

Wrapping up our conversation, I asked Dralyuk about his poem “Emigré Library” and its memorable lines: “Our library is open, but for whom? / The ranks of the expired far outnumber / these half-blind holdouts hobbling through the room.” Turns out, some years ago, the community established a Russian-language library, compiled of donations from members, or, to be more precise, their families, who did not want these books after the owners’ passing. We walked over to the library, which is still open, and glanced at the books’ spines: Turgenev and Sholem Aleichem, Tolstoy and Babel, poetry alongside romance novels.

We chatted with the librarian, an older but undeniably upbeat and very neatly dressed woman. “Can you do me a favor?” she asked, producing the library’s most prized possession: an enormous, gorgeous volume of Goethe’s Faust translated into Russian, and printed in the pre-Revolution Russian script. “Can you take it to our master? It needs fixing.” Who is going to read Goethe’s Faust in Russian, and from a volume like that? Who needs it? Who schlepped this volume from across the ocean? Who is the master that’s willing to fix it, donating his time and skill to the library?

Driving away to drop off the book, the interview reverberating in my head, I recalled what Boris said: “I was always conscious of the fact that the proper place to experience something is inside a memory.” When irony haunts history inside one’s memory, all of it too big and beautiful for the memory alone to hold, the experience becomes a poem—even in Hollywood.

Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). His jazz-klezmer-poetry record Hermeneutic Stomp was released by Blue Thread Music in 2013.

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